Saturday, June 29, 2019

"What Would You Have Said?"

"I grew up in the Lutheran church," she told me yesterday.  "I went through Sunday school and was taught everything I was supposed to learn.  But I've drifted away--I guess a lot of my generation drifts away.  I don't believe like my parents believe.  I guess I'm an agnostic, really.  But after a while, I started feeling disconnected.  Like, I don't have a sense of community.  Well, there's this Methodist church I've found, that a friend invited me to.  They have a praise band, and they need a guitarist.  I don't like Christian rock--but I've started playing with them.  I like it--but I don't know if I'm just pretending to be something that I'm not.  I like the sense of connection and community that I find in church, but I'm not sure if I should be there if I don't accept everything they believe.  What do you think?"*

Instead of jumping in and telling you immediately how I answered her, I'm curious what you'd say. 

Some Christians would answer that unless she believes the same way they do, she shouldn't be in church--that church is a gathering of like-minded Christians.  Others would say she is welcome to attend, but definitely shouldn't join the church as a member.  Still others would say she should be welcome there, but shouldn't be playing in the band, since that's leading worship and worship leadership is only for those who believe.  Some go even further and say that a believer should only be in worship leadership if they're living life by some pretty righteous standards.  You get a lot of opinions from Christians about who's in and who's out, in terms of the church. 

In Acts 11:1-18 (MSG), Peter explains to the church that he has learned a tough lesson about judging people to be insiders and outsiders.  Here's what he says:

1-3 The news traveled fast and in no time the leaders and friends back in Jerusalem heard about it—heard that the non-Jewish “outsiders” were now “in.” When Peter got back to Jerusalem, some of his old associates, concerned about circumcision, called him on the carpet: “What do you think you’re doing rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name?”
4-6 So Peter, starting from the beginning, laid it out for them step-by-step: “Recently I was in the town of Joppa praying. I fell into a trance and saw a vision: Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in.
7-10 “Then I heard a voice: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, Master. I’ve never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.’ The voice spoke again: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’ This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the sky.
11-14 “Just then three men showed up at the house where I was staying, sent from Caesarea to get me. The Spirit told me to go with them, no questions asked. So I went with them, I and six friends, to the man who had sent for me. He told us how he had seen an angel right in his own house, real as his next-door neighbor, saying, ‘Send to Joppa and get Simon, the one they call Peter. He’ll tell you something that will save your life—in fact, you and everyone you care for.’
15-17 “So I started in, talking. Before I’d spoken half a dozen sentences, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us the first time. I remembered Jesus’ words: ‘John baptized with water; you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So I ask you: If God gave the same exact gift to them as to us when we believed in the Master Jesus Christ, how could I object to God?”
18 Hearing it all laid out like that, they quieted down. And then, as it sank in, they started praising God. “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life!”

Peter's conundrum wasn't about clean and unclean food.  I mean, as a Jewish man, yes, that was an issue, and that was radical enough.  But this vision was God's way of making the point that just as there's no such thing as clean and unclean food, there's no such thing as clean and unclean people.  Everyone is acceptable to God. God does not play favorites.

Yet, for some reason, there are some people that many churches still don't welcome.  They are deemed unworthy, or outsiders, because of the color of their skin, their disability, their citizenship status, their language, their sexual orientation or gender identity.  They are told that they're not welcome to fully participate in church life unless they believe the right doctrine, unless they're baptized, unless they're tithers, or unless they measure up in some other arbitrary way.  But the Bible's pretty clear that God plays no favorites.

So yesterday, I told the young woman that if I were the pastor of the church she's been attending, I'd tell her that if she's coming for the sake of community, she should keep coming.  That she shouldn't pretend to be something she's not, but if she enjoys playing the keyboard and contributing to the community in that way, she should continue to do so.  

Because, what would happen if I'd told her that she should stop playing, or stop attending, because her faith wasn't "good enough?"  I'd essentially have told her that she was an outsider.  Her partial interest would have turned to no interest at all--and worse than that, she would have felt hurt, rejected, and alienated.  

I believe that when Jesus hung on the cross, his arms were spread wide--not just in crucifixion, but in welcome.  "Come to me, ALL who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest," Jesus said.

So, I told her to come, encouraged her to stay, and hoped she'd share her gifts.  But I wonder...

What would you have said?






*The above conversation was real, but certain details have been changed to protect anonymity.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

"Rule Number Six"

In a world like ours, it's easy to get offended.  Somebody posts something that differs from your opinion on Facebook, and you take it as a personal attack.  You have your review at work and your supervisor points out something you need to improve, and you take a critique as criticism.  The sheer existence of another person that you perceive as different from yourself causes you to sweat--mainly because you take yourself too seriously.

It would be easier to smile at these things and understand the deep secret that...

IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU.

In the Bible, the prophet Samuel governed Israel, not as a reigning monarch, but by the power of his moral influence.  Everybody came to him for advice, and they admired him for his wisdom.  That worked pretty well, until the Samuel's children started misbehaving.  People started questioning his leadership.  They also started looking at the nations around them, and got ideas that the governmental structure ought to change.  1 Samuel 8 (MSG) says:

Fed up, all the elders of Israel got together and confronted Samuel at Ramah. They presented their case: “Look, you’re an old man, and your sons aren’t following in your footsteps. Here’s what we want you to do: Appoint a king to rule us, just like everybody else.”
When Samuel heard their demand—“Give us a king to rule us!”—he was crushed. How awful! Samuel prayed to God.
God answered Samuel, “Go ahead and do what they’re asking. They are not rejecting you. They’ve rejected me as their King."

Samuel could have gotten offended, but God reminded him that it wasn't about him, anyway.  There was a bigger picture to look at, that went way beyond Samuel's fragile ego.

I remember when I was pastoring a church, and I had church members who vehemently opposed anything I tried to do or say.  They called my leadership into question time after time.  If I said the sky was blue, they'd say it was green.  I took it personally.  I got offended.  Then somebody came to me and said, "Don't worry about them--they opposed the pastor before you, and the pastor before him, and the pastor before him.  They just don't like pastors."  That gave me some perspective, and helped me to smile at their antics, not absorbing their negativity as a personal jab. 

Maybe there are areas in your life where you need to do the same.

I leave you with a story called "Rule Number Six" from the Huffington Post:

Two prime ministers were sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly an aide burst in, shouting and banging his fist on the desk. The host prime minister quietly said, “Peter, kindly remember Rule Number Six.” Peter was instantly restored to complete calm, apologized for the interruption, and left the room. The prime ministers resumed their discussion. Several minutes later, another aide rushed in, shouting and stamping. Again the host prime minister quietly said, “Marie, please remember Rule Number Six.” Marie calmed down immediately, apologized, and left the room.
The visiting prime minister said “I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Tell me, what is this Rule Number Six?” The host prime minister said, “It’s really very simple. Rule Number Six is ‘Don’t take yourself so damned seriously.’” After a moment of pondering, the visiting prime minister inquired, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?”
The host replied, “There aren’t any.”

Sunday, June 23, 2019

"Recalculating"

Just when you think you know God's plans, God shows other plans.

Just when you think you've figured out God's will, God shows you something else.

Ever felt that way?  You've read the Bible, you've prayed, you've got all your spiritual bases covered so that you're certain you're doing what you're supposed to--only to have the same God you thought was directing you, lead you in another direction?  It's confusing, isn't it?

In Acts 16, Paul is on a missionary journey.  He knows he's been directed to spread the word about Jesus, and he's got the trip all planned out.  He's measured the miles on Google Maps, planned out his destinations, and even allowed extra travel time for site-seeing along the way.  But God has other plans in mind.  Verses 6-10 (MSG) say:

They went to Phrygia, and then on through the region of Galatia. Their plan was to turn west into Asia province, but the Holy Spirit blocked that route. So they went to Mysia and tried to go north to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go there either. Proceeding on through Mysia, they went down to the seaport Troas.
That night Paul had a dream: A Macedonian stood on the far shore and called across the sea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over to Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans.

Just when Paul thought he had his itinerary all scheduled, God threw a monkey wrench into his plans.  First by the Holy Spirit, then by the Spirit of Jesus; finally by a vision of a Macedonian man--three times Paul was told that the course he had plotted was good, but it wasn't right for today.  Instead of taking the Gospel deeper into Asia, Paul turned aside and jumped the creek into Europe.  And the course of church history was changed, from Paul's will to God's will.

What made the difference in this story?  How was Paul able to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit, of Jesus, and of the Macedonian?  He took time to get quiet, to pray, and to listen to the inner prompting of his heart.

I know in my own life, just when I thought I had the next couple of decades planned out, God let me know in very clear terms that my plans were not his plans. In Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV), God says:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Maybe God's been showing you the same thing that I had to learn, and that Paul had to learn.  Maybe you're seeing that no matter how much work and detail you've put into plotting your course, God may have detours ahead.  How do you deal with those details?  Take time to get quiet, to pray, and to listen to the inner prompting of your voice.

When I'm on a road trip, I generally trust my GPS to take me where I want to go.  But sometimes a detour comes up that I didn't expect.  That's when the GPS says, "Recalculating." That's when I've got to be willing to adjust my plans, recalculate, and go a new way.  I hope that when life takes you on detours, you'll be able to recalculate and go with God's plan rather than your own plan.  As you do so, I wish you safe travels.